Shellback Tattoo Tradition / Ritual in Toy Soldier Saga | World Anvil
WE DID IT! Thank you for supporting our Kickstarter for Book 1, A Few Good Elves!
Available now at most major retailers.

Shellback Tattoo

The mark of a Trusty Shellback, received for "Crossing the Stars"

As seen in |
Shellback tattoos are given to spacefarers who have spent at least three months in space and crossed at least one wormhole. They are tattooed on the spacefarer's body as soon as possible after the event. The receiving of a shellback tattoo is preceded by an initiation ceremony for the spacefarer, known as "Crossing the Stars". It originates from the "Crossing the Line" ceremonies of seafaring cultures.


The early spacefarers originated from planetbound nautical sailors. Arcanological engineers modeled their starfaring craft designs after seafaring craft. As a result, the indelible stamp of the ways of the sea were left on the ways of the void.   Shellback tattoos, and other significant nautical tattoos, were (and still are, on many worlds) given to sailors who crossed important navigational markers; such as date lines, equators, or latitudes like a world's polar region. It was important to the sailors, who passed their superstitions and traditions on to starfarers, to find a tradition that echoed this.   While interstellar travel is important to spacefaring, in practice, most starfarers spend most of their service close to inhabited planets in a single system. Crossing a wormhole to an entirely different system seemed a logical choice to inherit this tradition.


The Lady Arianrhod was given lip service by almost all elven starfarers, so by tradition, She presided over the ceremony of Crossing the Stars.  Shaundar had heard bits and pieces about this ritual from his father and uncle, so he had some idea of what to expect, though not specifics; especially since each ship and sailor had its own take on it.   Those who had never been through interstellar space before, known as “pollywogs,” were allowed to deliver whatever abuse and hazing they saw fit to assign to those who had already crossed the stars, the “shellbacks;” though this was understood to be repaid in kind on the following day.  To start with, everyone stripped to the waist so that they could see who had shellback tattoos and who did not.  Shaundar was not surprised to see that Sylria was a shellback already.   He, Yathar and Garan took great pleasure in teasing Sylria and abusing the Exec.  Along with the other pollywogs, who vastly outnumbered the shellbacks on Queenie’s crew, they assigned the shellbacks, mostly senior crew and officers, to such ignoble tasks as emptying the head, scrubbing the scuppers, swabbing the deck, barnacle scraping and polishing all the pollywogs’ boots.   Sylria’s smirk as she ran black polish over Shaundar’s boots was a little disturbing, he had to admit, but there was no way he was going to allow this to spoil his entertainment.  She had a little smudge of polish left on the end of her nose where she had scratched it.  He didn’t tell her about it.  It made him smile.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  The ritual begins when everyone strips to the waist so that all can see who is already a shellback, and who is still a pollywog. The shellbacks are then subjected to abuse and hazing by the pollywogs, who assume command in all but emergency situations. Senior officers are more likely to be shellbacks, especially in times of war, so the enlisted pollywogs often take great pleasure in finding dirty and demeaning tasks for the shellbacks to do, or assigning them to eating the least appetizing food.  
The next day, true to form, the shellbacks got their revenge.   The first thing that happened was that breakfast was served; the last of the fresh fruit, honey glazed nuts, dessert wine and lahfidah for the shellbacks, hard tack and coffee made with the stalest water they could find for the pollywogs.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  On the following day, it is the pollywogs' turn to be subjected to the hazing, as a prelude to the main event of the ceremony.  
Then the Ensign was lowered and a black flag with starry points on it was hoisted.  “All hands to stations!” cried the grinning Captain.  “Prepare to receive the Old Man of the Void!”   The Old Man of the Void was a personification of death like “Davey Jones” in the seafaring tradition.  The pollywogs were directed to wear their dress uniforms to receive the gentleman properly, and he was piped aboard in the Shrike as though they were receiving an Admiral.  Shaundar didn’t know which of their crewmates had dressed in the black swashbuckler’s outfit with a feathered hat and a black mask that completely obscured their features, but he couldn’t help but feel a chill when the dark figure boarded their ship with their plain-bladed sword and crossbow.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  The Old Man of the Void represents the risk of death in space -- a constant presence. His "avatar" is treated with great dignity and respect at all times, and no spacefarer would consider violating this taboo.  
Then they were directed to receive Arianrhod, the Lady of the Stars.  Arianrhod was represented by the fairest, wispiest elf maid in their crew, whom Shaundar knew to be Lyenna, one of the Chiurgeons and a priestess of Brighid.  Lyenna was a star elf, so her silvery hair and amber eyes, with her fair porcelain skin, was exactly what Shaundar pictured when he thought of the Lady of Stars.  She was draped in gossamer robes that did nothing to hide her shapely silhouette, and crowned with a mithril horned crescent moon circlet.  Weirdly, in her arms she carried an enormous reeking turnip wrapped in swaddling clothes.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  Often, the Old Man of the Void is accompanied by a Royal Consort, usually representing the main creatrix goddess or celestial goddess in a culture's given pantheon. When a ship is multiracial and multicultural, she is usually referred to simply as the "Lady of the Stars." She represents the hope of life and the joy of spacefaring. She is even present in all-male crews, such as on orcish ships.   The Lady of the Stars is accompanied by the "Royal Baby," which takes various forms, depending on the ship and culture in question.  
The two of them were seated in prominent thrones on the main deck, which were painted with images of stars and nebulae (which Shaundar guessed must have been kept somewhere in the hold, though he didn’t recall ever seeing them while loading.)  They set about summoning their “Royal Court,” which Shaundar suspected was an excuse to incorporate all the shellbacks in “official” capacities.  Each was announced as though they were heads-of-state.   The pollywogs were then directed to entertain the Lady and the Old Man of the Void.  Some of them were ordered to dance, others to sing, still others to recite poetry.  Shaundar was put in a group where they were to act out scenes as described by “Arianrhod.”  He laughed so hard his knees gave out when he was directed to enact a starshark chewing on Yathar’s arm.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  The Old Man of the Void and the Lady of the Stars are seated in thrones which are kept specifically for the Crossing the Stars ceremony. These are often quite elaborate works of art, and are typically hidden in an out-of-the-way corner where the crew is unlikely to go on a regular basis.   The shellbacks then form the "Royal Court" of the Old Man of the Void and the Lady of the Stars. Usually, the pollywogs are then commanded to entertain them. On some ships, this is a glorious comedic display with fun for everyone; on others, it is a grueling contest with genuine risk.  
Then “trials” began against the pollywogs.  As they knelt before the “Royal Judge,” they were ordered to kiss the “Royal Baby”—the swaddled turnip, half-rotten and stinking.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  Kissing the Royal Baby is never pleasant. It might take the form of rotten fruit, or as one of the crew -- usually the one with the worst reputation for hygiene -- dressed up like an infant.  
Yathar was charged with “chronic womanizing” and was commanded to wear women’s clothing for the day.  Sylria helpfully lent him a bright red dress and painted him up with rouge.  It didn’t fit and he, of course, looked completely ridiculous.   Garan was accused of “terminal shyness” and they dressed him up in bright yellow, hung a bullseye lantern around his neck and commanded him to blow a trumpet or yell “Look at me!” for a good half hour.   Shaundar was charged with “excessive hot-dogging,” and they dangled him from the mizzenmast in a rock climber’s harness for about an hour.  Occasionally someone gave him a push so that he would swing wildly.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  Trials are usually associated with quirks or personality traits for which the spacefarer is known among the crew, and they are designed to tease the pollywog about it. Again, the character of this teasing varies from affection to aggressive mockery and humiliation.  
After that, Sylria, the “Royal Barber” cheerfully cut their hair into ridiculous, completely unwearable messes.  Then they were commanded to take the “Royal Bath,” which meant bathing—in their dress uniforms, no less—in a tub of the waste water from the mess mingled with spirits.  They were dunked three times and required to call out “shellback!” with each dipping.   Then canvas was laid out on the deck and strewn with garbage that would normally have been fired out of the catapult.  The shellbacks lined up on either side of the canvas with paddles, floggers, and ropes knotted at the ends.  They fastened ropes around the waists of the pollywogs, tied to belaying pins on the other end of the deck, and the pollywogs were commanded to run the gauntlet.   Having once been flogged as the sentence of his court martial, this command gave Shaundar a jolt like he had been kicked in the stomach.  But, not wanting to be accused of cowardice, he did it anyway.   They were not gentle with the paddling, but not brutal either.  When he was almost at the end of the canvas, someone grabbed a hold of his rope and hauled him back to the start.  They did this a few times before they let him go.  Seeing that everyone was receiving this same treatment, he almost didn’t finish because he was laughing too hard to move.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  A variety of hazing practices typically ensue. A shaving by a "Royal Barber," a form of "Royal Bath" while wearing one's dress uniform or best clothing, and beating with ropes, are fairly typical.   It is worth noting that individual starfarers handle this differently, and each ship has its own culture. Hazing can get quite aggressive on mercenary or pirate ships, and it is not uncommon for people to be accidentally killed in the course of the ritual. This is far more likely when a ship is in deep space and not scheduled to port in any time soon.  
Last, a bucket of water was dumped over the heads of each of the pollywogs in turn as a “baptism of the Airts,” a practical solution for ridding them of the unsavory tidbits they were coated in.  Then they were to bow before the Old Man and Arianrhod, who declared them to be Trusty Shellbacks and presented them with certificates.
A Few Good Elvesby Diane Morrison
  A "baptism of the Airts" is almost always included as the culmination of the ceremony. In seafaring traditions, this of course used to be a baptism of the sea, using seawater. In space, starfarers will usually use the scuttlebutt, since it is water that is openly exposed to the energies of the wormhole on the open deck.  
The nectar and spirits appeared in quantity and everyone set about celebrating in good elven tradition, punctuated only by the occasional twang of the eye ballistae.  Garan, Yathar and Shaundar wanted to get their shellback tattoos right away.  Lyenna was a tattoo artist, so she agreed to tattoo them as they drank prestigiously with the other new shellbacks.   Garan laughed and clapped Yathar and Shaundar on their un-inked shoulders while Lyenna set up the needles for his tattoo.  “I’ll buy us all drinks when we get back to port!” he promised.  “My grandmother will be so proud!”   “You’re on!” Shaundar said.   “We’ll hold you to that!” Yathar promised.   Shaundar was more than a little drunk when he came to the helm that night, and bleeding from his new tattoo; a star tortoise on its hind legs, inked onto his right shoulder.  The goo from the waste water was beginning to dry in the ruin of his hair and it was itchy.  So was the new body art.
A Few Good Elves by Diane Morrison
  A celebration ensues, during which the usual shipboard restrictions on alcohol consumption are relaxed. If possible, the tattoo itself -- a star tortoise on its hind legs -- is inked right away.

Components and tools

  • A black mask and costume for the Old Man of the Void
  • A starry gown for the Lady of the Stars
  • Clothing for the Royal Baby
  • The Royal Thrones
  • Dress uniforms, or quality clothing on ships that do not have uniforms
  • Boatswain's whistle, for piping the dignitaries aboard
  • Bilge water, for the Royal Bath
  • Knotted ship ropes or belaying pins for the hazing
  • The scuttlebutt, for the baptism
  • Prestigious amounts of alcohol
  • Shellback certificates
  • Tattoo needles and tattooing ink


Old Man of the Void

One of the starfarers or spacers dresses up as the "Old Man of the Void" -- the spacefaring equivalent of Davey Jones, or the personification of death. The Old Man wears a black cape and black mask or skull mask, sometimes with tentacles. He is piped aboard the ship as though the ship's crew were receiving an Admiral.  

Lady of the Stars

Another one of the ship's crew (whether the crew is from a culture that accepts women sailors or not) dresses as a Goddess who represents the Queen of Heaven in their pantheon. For the Orcs, this is Cethlenn, who is the moon goddess; for the Avalonian elves, this is Arianrhod, goddess of the stars; and for the goblins, this might be Lleniares, a star-goddess. "She" (even if the person playing her is not female) comes aboard with the Old Man of the Void as his consort, carrying "The Royal Baby."  


The shellbacks -- the spacefarers among the crew who have already Crossed the Stars -- are leaders of the ceremony. They receive a hazing from the Pollywogs the first night of the event. On the second day of the ceremony, they comprise the members of the Old Man's "royal court." They conduct "trials" of the Pollywogs for random "crimes" that are associated with personality traits and behaviours they're known for among the crew, and haze the Pollywogs.  


Also called "tadpoles," "griffins," "minnows" or "fledglings" depending on culture and tradition, the spacefarers who are being initiated into the Shellbacks are key members of the ceremony. They haze the Shellbacks on the first day of the event, and receive hazing and undergo the trials and "punishments" established by the Shellbacks. After the ceremony, they receive certificates marking the occasion, and their shellback tattoos are inked as soon as possible after the event.


A Crossing the Stars ceremony is observed as soon as possible once a spacefarer has entered an interstellar wormhole for the first time. While planetbound seafarers often waited until they arrived at the next port, and therefore had some leisure time on their hands, starfarers often perform the ceremony -- and if possible, ink the tattoo -- while still in space. This is due to the superstition that waiting too long offends the Old Man of the Void.

Don't forget that you can click on the blue compass on the left to access the Table of Contents at any time!
A Few Good Elves Cover Small.png

Want to read all of the Toy Soldier Saga fiction, even before the rest of the world does?Subscribe now!

Silver and Golden Shellbacks

In space, there are two special Shellback designations, marked by auras of the appropriate colour that are tattooed around the original star tortoise. Whether or not these auras are true to the metallic shade depends on culture, species, and the availability of materials:  

Silver Shellback

Has spent at least six months in space and been through two wormhole passages  

Golden Shellback

Has spent at least a year in space and been through three wormhole passages
Shellback tattoos feature a star tortoise standing on its hind legs. Some include sailor's hats, or wings for Star-Pilots. Others might include the ship's jack (for pirates or mercenaries) or clan runes (for Fomorians). The tattoos are inked in a variety of forms and colours, depending on culture of origin, or ship tradition.

Other Orders

  Just as in seafaring cultures, there are a few similar "orders," with similar induction and hazing rituals, that are bestowed for achieving other particular starfaring milestones:

Order of the Triangle

Triangle and Circle Tattoo by Piotr Siedlecki

  Awarded for circumnavigating the Core Worlds.

Order of the Sparrow

  Awarded for sailing in all the major sectors of space: the Core Worlds , the Dragon's Tail , the Avalon Corridor , and the Solstice Sector. A sparrow is a bird known for its ability to travel far but return home annually.

Order of the Black Star

Black Star Tattoo by Piotr Siedlecki

  Awarded for surviving an encounter with a black hole.


Crossing the Stars Certificate by Sable Aradia

Crossing the Stars Certificate , made out to Lieutenant Shaundar Sunfall - recovered from the wreck of the Queen's Dirk in 5042 AC.
  A certificate is traditionally awarded for achieving any one of these spacefaring milestones, to go with the tattoo. They tend to be quite elaborate by tradition, which descends from their origins in seafaring.  

Different Culture, Same Ceremony

They inducted the boys, at last, officially into the Order of the Silver Shellbacks. This was an ancient tradition that hailed from spacefaring’s ocean-sailing roots. On planetside, one was inducted when one crossed the world’s equator, along with some other significant positional marker, for the first time. In space, one was inducted into the Order of Trusty Shellbacks when one first made an interstellar passage. The boys had been inducted on their ill-fated voyage to capture, burn, or take the Vengeance, and they usually maintained that as part of their assumed identities because it earned them a useful degree of respect.   Among starfarers, a Silver Shellback had Crossed the Stars at least twice and a Golden Shellback thrice. Shaundar and Yathar were entitled to this a few times over now, but because the Navy could not officially admit to the places they had been, it was considered best that they not receive the ceremony. But Shaundar saw no harm in doing it as part of his assumed identity; and honestly, no way out of it if he did.   The Orcish version differed in a few significant ways from the Elvish one. For one thing, the hazing was brutal. The pirates prepared a trench of sewer water filled with emptied chamber pots for Shaundar and Yathar to swim through, and as marines, they were required to take on the ogres to prove their strength. It was still the Old Man of the Void whom they welcomed aboard with pomp and ceremony, but Cethlenn was His consort in this version of the myth. Then Balor, mimed by a pirate with an eye-patch and referred to strictly by the titles “Old One-Eye,” “He-Who-Watches” and “He Who Never Sleeps,” fought and defeated the Old Man for Her hand.   A Balorian playing Elatha served as a mediator and observer, and their version of the Royal Baby was the fattest, ugliest ogre on board, who was called “Baby Goibnu” and dressed in a very unflattering bonnet. Shaundar had to fight his gag reflex when asked to deliver the required kiss. Even considering he was covered in days-old sewage, that ogre still reeked with some kind of sickly-sweet smell that reminded Shaundar of some of the more virulent Raven Talon fungal infections.   They were then issued the certificate to denote their Silver Shellback status, which meant nothing to Shaundar, since it was not made out in his name. It was no different than the rest of the ceremony, really. The first one that had initially made him a shellback, and entitled him to the star tortoise tattoo that still adorned his right shoulder, was a time-honoured ritual delivered by friends and shipmates who had earned his love and loyalty. He found no joy in this cheap imitation when he had no loyalty to his vile shipmates, especially when the ones he loved had all been slain not three days after Crossing the Stars.
To Know Your Enemy by Diane Morrison

Shortlisted: WorldEmber 2020 Tradition or Ritual Category
Winner: Best of World Anvil 2021 Tradition Category


Author's Notes

Inspired by real life seafaring traditions.

Please Login in order to comment!
Dec 5, 2020 14:54 by Dr Emily Vair-Turnbull

I really enjoyed reading this, especially all the little bits of prose scattered throughout. I actually wasn't aware of the real life counterpart to this tradition, so I learnt something new today! :D   I love the certificate you included. It's so bright and cheerful! :D

Emy x   Etrea | Vazdimet
Dec 5, 2020 16:39 by Diane Morrison

Thanks Emy! :) I appreciate the encouraging comments!

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga. Mother of Bunnies, Eater of Pickles, Friend of Nerds, First of her Name.
Dec 6, 2020 08:38 by J. I. Rogers

This is a great read. I'd like it multiple times if I could :D

Cheers, all!
Dec 7, 2020 19:49 by Diane Morrison

:D Thank you so much!

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga. Mother of Bunnies, Eater of Pickles, Friend of Nerds, First of her Name.
Dec 17, 2020 11:17 by Kaleidechse

Very interesting to read! I also love the contrast between the prose excerpts in the main article and the one in the sidebar - they illustrate the differences between the cultures really well.

Creator of the Kaleidoscope System and the planet Miragia.
Dec 20, 2020 16:31 by Diane Morrison

Thank you so much! I'm glad you like them - culture shock is one of the themes of the novels. :)

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga. Mother of Bunnies, Eater of Pickles, Friend of Nerds, First of her Name.
Powered by World Anvil